TRENTON — Democratic leaders in the New Jersey Legislature have agreed to try to override Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s gay marriage veto, and are open for the first time to putting the question to voters in November if the override attempt fails.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora of Trenton, one of two openly gay state lawmakers, said Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly agreed to renew the push for marriage equality during a meeting Thursday. The strategy could include putting the question to voters in November with Christie on the ballot. The governor, who is Catholic, opposes same-sex marriage.
The November ballot already will include a question on whether the state should raise its minimum wage and is likely to have Democratic Sen. Barbara Buono, who supports both the minimum wage increase and gay marriage, at the top of the ticket facing Christie.
“This could be a perfect storm to get out the Democratic base,” Gusciora said.
Christie, who vetoed the gay marriage bill a year ago, has urged lawmakers to put the question to voters.
“On this issue, I am comfortable with the people of the state of New Jersey making the decision,” Christie said Tuesday in Lavallette. “If they want to put it on the ballot, put it on the ballot.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who was opposed to gay marriage in 2010 but has come to regret that decision and now supports it, has previously refused to put the question to voters. He has said same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue that does not belong on the ballot. However, Sweeney and Assembly Democratic Leader Lou Greenwald recognize the difficulty of overriding Christie and have agreed to keep their options open, Gusciora said.
This displeases Troy Stevenson, who recently took over as head of Garden State Equality, the state’s largest gay-rights organization. Stevenson, who worked in Maine in 2009 on the losing side of a gay marriage referendum, said the effort to win marriage equality by ballot initiative is divisive, expensive and incredibly rough on families headed by same-sex partners.
“We still believe override is the immediate goal,” he said.
Mico Lucide, a junior at Stockton State College and former president of the school’s Pride Alliance group — which supports Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning students — said it’s important for the state to adopt gay marriage.
“My personal opinion is New Jersey should be a pioneer in everything we do,” he said. “(The state) is a little behind on the gay-marriage front.”
Lucide said he is unsure if the Legislature can get the required two-thirds vote to override the veto, but he believes it would pass as a referendum.
“I am certainly confident if there was a referendum the people of New Jersey would pass it,” he said.
Chad Parlett, a psychology professor at Atlantic Cape Community College, said he agrees with studies that suggest homosexuality is a function of a person’s biology and not choice.
“It’s not a question of moral or religious views,” he said. “This is why people who are homosexual should not feel guilty about it.”
The Linwood based psychoanalyst has patients who are gay and said adopting gay marriage would ease a feeling of discrimination they can sometimes feel because of their sexual orientation.
“Why shouldn’t they have the same rights as everyone else?” he said.
The Democratic-led Legislature has never been successful in overriding a Christie veto. To get the needed two-thirds majority in both the Senate and Assembly they would need some Republicans would have to be willing to cross the governor.
The effort will start in the Senate, where Sweeney will need to persuade 27 of 40 senators to support gay marriage. The Assembly would need yes votes from 54 of its 80 members.
Stevenson acknowledges that if the vote were held next week, the override would fail. But he holds out hope that an expected June ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act could bring new momentum — and votes — if the court rules as gay activists hope.
Those in South Jersey’s gay community expressed their support for the issue Friday.
Joel Ballesteros, 42, and Robert Thibodeau, 51, of Linwood, have been together for 14 years and if the state would legalize it they would get married.
"It would be a milestone," Ballesteros said. "It's not an issue of gay or straight. It's and issue of love."
And besides, he said, his partnership has lasted longer than many heterosexual marriages
Peter Komar, 47, and Ken Gregg, 48, of Cape May Court House, have been together for 22 years.
They have a civil union, which was registered in Gallowy Township, but would love the opportunity to get married.
The two have a son, who is married with a wife and daughter.
"I think it's because he had such a good role model, that he decided to get married and not have a baby out of wedlock," Komar said.
Craig Gardner, of Egg Harbor Township, compared the issue to several years ago when interracial marriages were facing the same issues. Yet there are so many now.
He said the issue is not about churches and religious ceremonies, but about the acknowledgement of a loving committed relationship.
He said he has friends who have been together for 20 years and only have a limited domestic partnership.
"But why can't they get married? Who are we to put restrictions on others? Am I not equal to a straight person?" he said.
Staff Writers Joel Landau and Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this report.